Thursday, April 30, 2009

Axioms of Thought

In Which Aviatrix falls so far into her own metaphors so as to no longer have room for the story she was trying to tell.

Sometimes I have discussions with people who don't seem to make sense. A lot of people have such discussions, which I think is why some people think liberals are stupid, some people think conservatives are ignorant, and why religion gets so much flak. It's far easier to assume that the person on the other side of the argument just doesn't get it, than to figure out the misunderstanding. I try to start with the assumption that the person is neither insane nor stupid, and go from there.

I had a months-long on-and-off internet argument with someone once. I thought it was a point of philosophy that I was begging him to compromise on for the sake of a project and he just kept throwing it back in my face, seemingly refusing to even acknowledge that there was a risk. That was finally resolved when we discovered two words crucial to the argument were synonyms to him, but had a vital contrast for me. Being that the argument was in text, his written English was near flawless, and the position he seemed to be taking was not uncommon, it took that long to track down the discrepancy. And this was an easy one, because it didn't really represent a difference in our underlying axioms.

By axioms I mean things that people believe or know in order to know or deduce anything else. Those of you with a mathematics background know that you can't have a system of knowledge without having some arbitrary ground rules first. Our mathematical system is based on axioms like things that are equal to the same thing are equal to one another. I mean duh!

The problem is, people often don't even know they have them. They build what may be a perfectly logical and coherent argument up from a base that the other person isn't standing on. It's like trying to get someone from an island over to your mainland by building a magnificent bridge between the mainland and completely different island. Here is where people start to think one another are insane morons. The islander says he can't drive over what the mainlander knows is an excellent bridge, so the mainlander decides it's all due to religious prejudice and gives up on islanders all together.

The nature of an axiom is that it is something so self-evident that it doesn't even need to be stated. So people assume that everyone accepts that axiom, or even when they know that some don't, they don't see that their logical arguments depend on it.

A common axiom of thought is that the world is God's divine creation and that He is omniscient and omnipotent. People for whom this is axiomatic can't prove it. They feel it, they know it, the enormity of creation demonstrates it. It is true because it is the original Truth. I need a short name for people who hold this to be a self-evident truth, and "creationist" won't do because believing in divine creation doesn't require belief that it happened in six days, six thousand years ago. I'll call them God-ists, because it's short. For the purpose of this discussion it carries no other meaning than "people for whom divine creation is a self-evident axiom," and I've made it up solely to abbreviate the phrase.

God-ists nowadays universally know that not everyone shares that belief, but it doesn't stop them from thinking arguments based on it should sway non-believers.

Don't think I'm being unfair to God-ists here. Their frequent adversaries, those whose axiom is that the universe is a completely logical place, entirely governed by forces that can be understood in a physical sense, often do not realize that that is an unprovable belief, an axiom that all their knowledge rests on. It is every bit as unprovable as the existence of an invisible pink unicorn. But many Sci-ists can't imagine someone being able to get through their daily life without seeing the self-evidence of this truth. They dismiss God-ists as deluded without it.

That's a simplistic presentation with lots of room to argue about. I only intended it as a familiar example. Many God-ists embrace the Sci-ist's axiom as a kind of Second Law of Godotics: "God set up the universe as a logical place, governed by physical forces, except for when He intervenes." That combination seems to be to be the closest fit to what we've observed, except that a Sci-ist states the identical observation as "The universe is a logical place, governed by physical forces, even when something happens that we don't yet know the physical explanation for." Just because once upon a time every sunset and sunrise was understandable only as an act of the gods and now we can understand the workings of cells and atoms doesn't mean that God didn't set it up that way, and just because we are unwinding more and more of the wrappings of our physical world doesn't mean that there isn't still something at the core that is not susceptible to physical laws.

Whew, this got way more theological than I intended. I wonder if that's the feeling of the theoretical physicists who end up writing books or participating in projects like What The Bleep Do We Know? when all they are doing is trying to understand chaos theory and the fundamental nature of energy and matter in a rigid scientific way. I think of science and religion both working on the same immense jigsaw puzzle, with science rigidly sorting out all the edge pieces and carefully fitting pieces one into the other, trying to build up in a consistent manner from the border to the inside, while religion plucks pieces out of the box and tries to fit them together without knowing or caring which way up they go or how they relate to the border. A lot of the tabs are very similar in shape and size, so quite often both parties make errors in fitting pieces together. Each trumpets the other's errors as evidence that the other is all wrong, and even spends some time trying to take apart the other's assembled pieces. The advance of science has now built the puzzle to the point that religion has had to realize that many of their pieces are from a different puzzle altogether, but I suspect we're just reaching the point where some of the pieces that religion has assembled are going to match up with what science has assembled. No one, of course, has access to the picture on the box. It's probably kittens with string.

Whee, that was so much fun I never got to the story. Next time. Oh and Canadians, don't think about it too long: your 2008 taxes have to be filed by midnight tonight.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Border Collies are Environmentally Friendly

When I blogged about FAA plans to close access to their birdstrike database I mentioned that some of the birdstrike material strikes my funnybone. This comprehensive document made me laugh a few times:

I'm imagining the act of bad judgment that had them recommend good judgment in this passage.

Dead birds will sometimes scare away flocks of the same species. Placing fresh carcasses in open areas also offers limited effectiveness; however, scavengers will also be attracted to dead animals. Some wildlife officers report success in dispersing flocks simply by tossing a recently dispatched gull into the air while playing distress calls. Such acts should be carried out only with good judgment, and with consideration for any onlookers who might take offense. Placing taxidermically-mounted gulls—prepared in what are termed agony postures—in open areas has also led to some success, although such models are unable to withstand harsh weather conditions.

Apparently birds are smarter than the average character in a teen horror movie, who goes out in her underwear to investigate in the same circumstances.

Border Collies are environmentally friendly.

Low-emissions, non-carcinogenic, locally produced, runs on biofuel, and can fetch sticks. What else could you ask for?

And this pilot guide to bird avoidance contained this statistic:

60% of mammal strikes occurred when the aircraft was on approach or landing
34% of mammal strikes occurred during takeoff

My initial response was "And six percent of mammal strikes were with bats or skydivers?" but I suppose the remainder could be airplanes hitting animals while taxiing, or even animals running into parked aircraft. Hey, if a bull moose considers a Ford Focus to be a challenge to his moosculinity, why not a Piper Malibu?

There's also the risk of falling cows, like this urban legend and the YouTube clip below.

My ambition is to hit a flying snake in Canada, just because the form only allows for "bird" and "mammal" events, and I'd have to write in "reptile". That and the potential for "Snakes on a Plane" jokes for everyone.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Suicide By Cop F-16

You probably already know about the 31-year-old Canadian who stole a Cessna 172 from a flying school in Thunder Bay and headed south across Lake Superior to the US, where he was intercepted by but did not respond to American F-16 fighter jets. He landed of his own accord on a road in Missouri, where he parked the airplane under a bridge and ran on foot to a convenience store where he bought a Gatorade and chatted with locals until the police came in and got him. This CBC story has less information but includes photographs of both Adam Leon and the airplane.

His story is that he wanted to commit suicide, but couldn't bring himself to harm himself, so planned his cross-border foray in order to goad the Americans into shooting him down. Some news stories say that he had been treated for depression and left a good-bye note for his girlfriend or a suicide note near the hangar.

I can picture his well-meaning flight instructor teaching him to ensure he has a transponder code and two-way radio contact with ATC when in close proximity to the US border. "If you don't," the flight instructor could easily have said, "the Americans may scramble intercept jets, and if you do not tune 121.5 and do exactly as they ask, they have the right to shoot you down for entering their airspace." Is there a Canadian flight instructor who hasn't given such a warning to students who will be flying near or crossing the border on a cross-country flight? Adam would probably also have known where to find the intercept signals in the CFS, to understand and respond to intercepting aicraft without the use of a radio.

My favourite little detail was that Adam reportedly landed with thirty minutes of fuel remaining. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I like to think that his flight instructor drilled air law into him so thoroughly that even while suicidally defying an international boundary and armed jets, he couldn't disobey the mandate to land with half an hour of gas in his tanks.

Serious credit must go to the American military for their measured reaction to the incident. The population is very easily frightened by things like this. They evacuated the Senate in Wisconsin, after all. But no one got shot down, or shot at all. The guy was arrested for the only crimes he had actually committed: transporting stolen property and illegally entering the country. The FBI found no links to terrorism in his background. He'll likely be sent back to Canada. (Good thing he wasn't an American picked up by the RCMP in Canada. They probably would have tasered him to death). Given a history of depression and a self-confessed suicide attempt, he will lose his Canadian medical and possibly never get it back, so he'll need a new career.

The accompanying conspiracy theory is that rather than being a mentally ill flight student, he's an Islamic terrorist testing the system. He immigrated to Canada from Turkey last year, and used to be named Yavuz Berke. Did his six hours in the Falcons' gunsights give him a chance to think things over and return to a rational appreciation for life, such that the strangest thing the Missourians noticed about him was that he asked to use a "washroom" instead of a "bathroom"? (What's up with that, anyway? Is that something Missourian? Bathroom, washroom, toilet, restroom ... would any of these mark someone as "not from around here, are you?" in your community?)

An argument the linked blog entry didn't notice is that Adam Leon spent money in Missouri. While Americans in border states may accept Canadian bills, Misourri is too far south to be considered a border state, and you can't give someone two dollars or just barely have enough to buy a Gatorade in Canadian bills. The smallest bill is a five. So he was carrying a few dollars in US cash. Just enough to pay for a lift and a snack while waiting to be arrested. Or maybe he had a few bucks US in his wallet because he had a post box in Grand Marais, Michigan for ordering things on the internet. Like plutonium?

I also liked the informational paragraph one article had on the C172. It has a maximum cruise speed of 233 kilometres an hour and a range of 1,130 km. It's true, but it makes it sound so fast!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's ...Shhhh!

Pilots, mechanics and others in the air transport system are encouraged to report bird strikes whenever they occur, whether or not they damage the airplane. It's very simple. You fill out a paper or online form, either the Canadian Bird/Wildlife Strike Report or the USBird/Other Wildlife Strike Report. (The difference in the names of the forms apparently confirms the conclusion of this Onion cartoon: Canadian birds are not wildlife). You indicate things like where you were, the phase of flight, how many birds you saw and struck, what was damaged, and how much it cost the company in various ways. You can even send what's left of the bird in to have its age sex and species identified.

The government collects the data and from it can derive safety recommendations to pilots, strategies for bird reduction at airports, and determine the economic impact of birdstrikes. I suppose the data is also used by lobbyists, the news media, ornithologists, airport planners, people selling bird deterring devices, and anyone with an interest in birds, airplanes or the interactions thereof. It's like any other data the government collects: people use it to study things, convince people of things and write sensational news stories.

Well no more, at least not if you want to study the wildlife kind of birds. The FAA has announced plans to seal birdstrike report records. That's the USA Today story. The Federal Register notice is here (PDF). They say that releasing the details of birdstrikes could "produce an inaccurate perception" of the risks birds pose to airplanes and "unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter." They feel that that keeping the data secret would encourage more people to contribute to the voluntary database.

I had a discussion with some airline and media folks and to my surprise many thought it was a good idea to make the data secret. I assume the data will still be somehow available to the people who have to make spending decisions regarding bird deterrents, so it is just the secondary users of the data who will suffer having it withdrawn. But if the government collects the data, the government processes the data, the government allocates spending for birdstrike reduction and the government assesses the results, where does this leave the voters who have to evaluate the government? Will we be told if birdstrikes are up or down this year? That the bird eradication program is working? I offended someone in the earlier discussion who felt I was comparing soldiers to pigeons, when I said that hiding war casualty statistics might also alleviate fear in the population. They could just tell us that the surge is working. And it's not like the birds are going to study our statistics to find weaknesses in our defenses or exploit unease in the population. But regardless of the orders of magnitude separating A320 vs. pigeon from soldier vs. shrapnel, how is it a good strategy to restrict data about bad things in order to keep people from worrying about it?

Those that looked at the link for the US birdstrike form will have seen that, curiously, the data is collected by Embry Riddle University, not by the FAA itself. I suppose that will have to change. Or perhaps ER will collect the data, give it to the government and then also quietly give it to people with legitimate research uses for it.

Will the US now not comply with the ICAO birdstike reporting procedures? "Sorry, but that data is for our use only and cannot be shared with the international aviation community?"

The thrust of the supporters' argument seems to be that the media are morons ("a majority of press can’t even figure out where 12A is, much less know what type of aircraft they are flying") and might misinterpret the data to report that airline A or airplane Z was safer because it had fewer birdstrikes than the competition. Here's an article that discusses the "shocking" number of birds around airports. The limited ability of the media to understand a story on deadline is legend, but so is its short attention span, mirroring that of the public. I suspect the "airplane felled by birds" story has pretty much run its course and that if the FAA hadn't told them they couldn't look at it, media interest in the birdstrike database would have fallen to zero pretty quickly.

Pilots, would you be discouraged from filing a birdstrike report based on the possibility that the local paper would report "A struck a starling just below the windscreen on approach to today. The aircraft was not damaged and the pilot landed the airplane safely"? Naturally the article would quote a fuel truck driver saying "yup, those starlings are all over the place here," and wrap up by reminding readers that birds were responsible for the forced landing of a US Airways A320. I'd think it was pretty funny, even if the article said I "was unable to avoid" striking the bird, as if it was a matter of my competence at starling evasion.

I have some funny quotes about bird strikes and prevention measures, but I think I'll put them in another post, so as not to "discourage you from volunteering information" on the above question.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Choose Your Own Misadventure

You are the commander of a Boeing 737 passing through 10,000' and setting up for a visual approach. You realize that you have misjudged the wind and your descent profile. You are likely to be too high and fast. You:
a) extend speed brakes
b) fly further out than usual before turning final
c) recheck your calulations
d) nose down and go faster, hoping it will work out

You are still high and fast. You call for flap 15 but the co-pilot does not respond to your request. You:
a) ask him why he did not do as you asked
b) yell at him
c) extend them yourself
d) continue the approach without flaps

You are on final approach and the flaps are set to five degrees extension. The manual calls for at least thirty degrees of flaps for landing, but the manual also calls for a much lower airspeed before extending that much flap. You:
a) try to extend the flaps anyway
b) leave them up and land anyway
c) conduct a missed approach

You believe the flaps are malfunctioning, as you have selected them down but the airplane is not slowing as it usually does. You:
a) continue the approach at high speed
b) check all your power settings and other parameters
c) conduct a missed approach, extend the flaps at altitude and have a crew member go aft to the passenger cabin to confirm the position visually

You encounter windshear on approach to a runway. You:
a) conduct a missed approach in accordance to your company procedures
b) land with minimal flaps at above normal speed
c) continue at whatever speed and configuration you can attain, just to get the airplane on the ground.

You are at the position on the approach where your company manual calls for you to be stabilized. You are so high and so fast that the airplane automated systems think you are crashing. You:
a) attempt to land
b) conduct a missed approach

You are almost a hundred feet above the runway threshhold, well above landing speed and not in landing configuration. The copilot is telling you to conduct a missed approach, and does not confirm landing checks complete. You:
a) attempt to land
b) conduct a missed approach

You touch down over a third of the way down the runway, at well over maximum tire speed. The airplane bounces twice, pulling almost three Gs, and the nose gear collapses while the copilot yells at you to go around. One of the engines comes off its pylon. You:
a) kill 22 people and injure almost everyone else.

Sadly, there is only one choice in the end, and that is the adventure a real life commander chose.

Indonesian pilot Marwoto Komar has been sentenced to two years in jail after being found guilty of criminal negligence for attempting to land a Boeing 737 in the wrong configurations and at almost twice the normal speed. The jet overran the end of the runway into a rice field. Twenty-two people were killed and fifty were seriously injured in the crash and ensuing fire. The Daily Telegraph story here includes a dramatic photo of the post crash fire.

According to the investigation report, the aircraft was already fast through 10,000' on the approach, as they exceeded the crew accepted a straight in visual approach to Yogyakarta but continued on the ILS approach without informing ATC. As long as someone is looking out the window, there's not a lot of difference between a well-flown long straight in visual and an ILS approach, but unfortunately this was neither. The aircraft arrived overhead the initial approach fix high and fast. Not just a little bit high, but at 3927' instead of 2500'. It wouldn't be the first time a crew had cut a few corners and come in too high, but the captain, who was the pilot flying, elected to rectify the situation by lowering the nose into a steep descent. There's an expression in aviation: you can go down or slow down. They had been trying to do both for the whole descent, at one point reaching 293 knots below 10,000', knowing they had a tailwind.

The captain called for more flaps, but the first officer did not extend them because the airspeed was 33 knots over flap extension speed. The captain continued to ask for flap fifteen right through the approach, but the FO never extended them nor gave a reason why he was not doing so. The ground proximity warning system reacted to the configuration, speed and rate of descent by issuing alerts and warnings, which the crew ignored, fifteen times.

They arrived over the beginning of the runway still 89 feet in the air and travelling at 232 kts with flap 5 (as opposed to the manufacturer's recommended 134 kts with flap 40). The aircraft touched down 860 m from the threshhold (more than a third of the way along the runway), bounced twice, then landed again still well over the recommended tire speed. The nosewheel tire burst, sending up sparks as what was left of the gear scraped along the runway. Both thrust reversers were deployed, and presumably the brakes were applied, but with too much speed and too little runway remaining, the overrun was inevitable.

It does not appear that there were any mitigating issues such as approaching weather, critical fuel, or pre-existing emergency.

There are so many issues here. I'll touch responsibility, training, co-pilot assertiveness and the role of the criminal justice sytem in air safety.

The captain never took responsibility for the crash. "Lack of remorse" was even cited as a factor in his sentencing. Compare to Captains Sullenberger and Haynes who saved lives landing airplanes crippled by circumstances beyond their control, but later agonized over what they could have done better. It's almost bizarre how Komar blamed everyone and everything but himself. He attended the trial in uniform, and fully expected to return to work.

He claimed windshear at touchdown. It's a known problem in the area and something a captain with over 13,000 hours of experience should be able to recognize, but there were no other reports of windshear in the area, no indication that it might be present from the detailed winds aloft, and a professional approach marred by windshear is inconsistent with the speed profile recorded throughout the descent.

He claimed that the flaps were faulty and did not extend when selected, but investigation found "no evidence of any defect or malfunction with the aircraft or its systems that could have contributed to the accident." The chief crash investigator, Mardjono Siswosuwarno, said the aircraft's wing flaps failed to extend for landing and that might have been caused by the high speed, but that's not something the captain can blame on the flaps.

The captain also levelled blame at the co-pilot, for not lowering the flaps, and at the poor emergency services. Admittedly the copilot did not clearly refuse the flap extension command by stating "Unable, we're thirty knots high" or whatever his SOP callout was, and the emergency services at the field were poor and contributed to the death toll, but none of that excuses the captain's actions.

The PIC said that he was unaware of the actual airspeed and expected that the copilot would inform him of any speed concerns, but that doesn't align with the comments he made during the descent, or the knowledge that someone with 3700 hours on the airplane would have to possess. The copilot called for a go around before and after touchdown, and the captain did not respond. It has been suggested, (but the captain has denied) that a company incentive to save fuel led to the decision to continue the unstable approach.

Poor training probably contributes to the decisions the crew made. For example, training records showed that the pilots had attended an "introductory" GPWS course with no evidence of related sim training. Non-pilot staff seem to be lacking some basic training in public relations, seeing as they got took their pictures taken, smiling, with the burned out wreckage. But how much training does it take to choose a missed approach at some point in that accident sequence? The copilot doesn't seem to have had sim training in the actions he needed to take in order to take control of the airplane from a captain who has not stabilized the approach. He did try. He said, he had shouted at the captain to go around because "that was the proper procedure ... to ask people to go around with yelling".

And that's tough. You need training, confidence and a company culture that will support taking an airplane away from a captain. This co-pilot stuck up for the captain after the crash. I don't believe that he literally blacked out from the g-forces. I think he needs a story to tell himself to explain why he did not take control and perform the missed approach. It reminds me of Michael Origel, the co-pilot of American Airlines flight 1420 that overran the runway in Little Rock Arkansas during a landing in a thunderstorm. Origel insists that he called for a go around, despite the fact that experts can find no trace of it on the CVR. I believe him. The voice in his head screaming that this was not right was so loud that he can't believe the captain and the recording microphone didn't pick it up. Has there ever been an accident in which a copilot's loud demands that a captain go-around were cited as a cause or contributing factor? Ever hear of a copilot fired for asking a captain to go around? I can name names, hell I have a pocket in my formal coat containing funeral programmes that name names of people who might be alive today had they demanded a go around.

But considering all the things that people did or didn't do, should or shouldn't have known to do, was a criminal act committed? They broke company policy in the lack of a stabilized approach, but I don't know that they broke air regulations. Could the possibility of the CVR being introduced as testimony in court cause pilots not to admit errors in flight?

It is very uncommon for a pilot to be charged with a crime in connection with a crash. It's a somewhat disturbing precedent when you're a pilot. We're usually assumed to be doing what we believe is best for the flight, in defense our own necks, and air law gives us a lot of latitude to do things that would otherwise be against the rules to defend our safety. Any misjudgements we make already force us to face possible injury or death and then we have to defend them to our own conscience, our boss, and the aviation regulatory authority. Do we need to add the civil justice system?

The decisions the captain made during this flight seem reckless. I think his conviction is closer to the correct outcome than having the manufacturer sued for the flaps failing to deploy at excessibe speeds, but I'm not convinced that the justice system should have a role here.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Newsflash: Engines Vulnerable to Idiots

In 2004 two Pinnacle Airlines pilots flying a leg with no passengers decided to "have some fun" and fly their CRJ200 to its published performance ceiling of 41,000'. That's a little bit like driving your car at 200 km/h, without regard for road conditions, just because the speedometer goes up that far. They exceeded the recommended climb rate, never reaching the published minimum speed for that altitude, and ran one of the engines 300 degrees above its maximum operating temperature. They also did not take into account the non-standard temperature, which lowered the performance ceiling. The airspeed was so low that the stick shaker was activating, and both engines flamed out. They recovered the stall and attempted to restart the engines, but could not, and without the engines they couldn't hold altitude. They did not inform ATC of the extent of their problem and bypassed four possible landing airports before attempting an off airport landing in the dark. Both were killed and the aircraft was destroyed in the ensuing crash.

For more information see the NTSB report and the cockpit voice recording transcript. The NTSB called it unprofessional behavior poor airmanship and inadequate training. They were even nominated for a Darwin Award. But that's just background. Their escapade is not what this blog entry is about. It's that the engine manufacturer has taken some blame.

No, Pinnacle didn't sue the pilots' families and initial training organization to recover the cost of the fine airplane they lost. The families of the pilots sued the engine manufacturer for not making it clearer that if you did unspeakably stupid things with their engines, they were unlikely to continue functioning. And now the FAA has mandated changes to the General Eletric CF34 turbofan engine based on this crash.

The FAA have concluded that "excessive" friction between the static and rotating portions of a certain engine seal, under certain high-power, high-altitude conditions is unsafe and must be corrected. This is a mandatory airworthiness directive, so over two thousand such engines will have to undergo a modification, costing their operators ten hours per airplane. GE says it respectfully disagrees that there is an unsafe condition in the engine. They tried to get the FAA to explain it as a measure to reduce friction to facilitate an engine start after a high-altitude dual flameout, "an engine condition that is extremely rare," but the FAA declined.

It's true that these engines were very sensitive to the high angle of attack they were subjected to, and the pilots didn't realize that. The piston engines on training airplanes can be run at full power during a stall and the airplane doesn't care. After a period of high angle of attack and low speed, the reduced engine cooling will cause a rise in engine temperature, but the engine isn't dependent on the airflow for its very rotation the way the turbofan is. Once the engines stopped rotating they were going to be very hard to restart. Perhaps someday someone else will get these engines flamed out in coffin corner and the modification will keep them turning long enough to get them to safety.

I think the FAA decision is unfortunate, not so much over twelve thousand hours of upgrade work on CF34 engines, but that the wording of the AD may help the legal case against the company. In the 1980s, general aviation aircraft simply stopped being manufactured because the companies couldn't bear the legal costs of survivors suing them when pilots (or in some cases non-pilots in stolen airplanes!) asked airplanes to do things they weren't designed to do, and died. Jim Campbell of the Aero-News Network has a more strongly worded opinion on the situation.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

SkyCatcher Not Catching the Sky Properly?

Cessna introduced the SkyCatcher, a light sport plane, at Oshkosh this year, but it is not yet ready for market. Cessna had two prototypes, but both have been destroyed during flight testing. An aviation week article alerted me to the events of the second flight test accident.

It sounds like a pretty harrowing flight. The test pilot deliberately put the airplane into a spin "during a planned test condition" which I assume, possibly incorrectly, relates to a particular centre of gravity and weight combination. The entry would also have included a particular combination of flaps, power and attitude, inducing a stall with yaw, leading to a spin. The resulting spin was particularly rapid, and the proper control inputs did not cause the airplane to recover from the spin, so the test pilot activated the aircraft parachute.

It deployed correctly, and the airplane stopped spinning, so the test pilot then tried out another function of the new aircraft design: the ability to jettison the parachute and return to normal flying. But that function didn't work. Being a test pilot, he was wearing a personal parachute, too, but by the time he opened the door to use that, there wasn't enough altitude for it to open, so he landed, uninjured, with the parachuting airplane.

I'm intrigued by the NTSB investigator's statement that "surface winds inflated the parachute and drug the airplane." In standard my dialect of English, the past tense of drag is dragged but this writer has chosen "drug." I wonder if that is a regionalism.

The whole story is not a great ad for the SkyCatcher, but things going wrong in testing is why testing is necessary, and why you shouldn't fly your airplane in a non-certified condition.

And in the "ideas to save money" category, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority is talking about closing the Buttonville airport. Yes, they are considering closing the general aviation airport that keeps training, medevac and business flights out of Pearson, the busiest airport in Canada.

Monday, April 13, 2009

In Hockey it's an Honour

Yes, in answer to a comment regarding partying in the comments here when I'm away, by all means. You're all welcome to discuss whatever topics strike your fancy here. I just ask that you not be abusive to one another, and that a topic started on one blog entry remain on that blog entry, no matter how many days ago it was, and not get spread over different blog entries. That way the discussion is in one place that people can follow it, (you know how to tick the box to get replies e-mailed to you, right?) and people who are tired of that topic can move on and not have it follow them around.

I do intend to comment on the young Canadian who attempted to commit "suicide by cop" in a C172, and the Garuda pilot jailed for continuing a dangerously unstable approach, but I haven't finished thinking about those stories so today a bit of numerical superstition to go with the date.

I was e-mailing with someone who works with United Airlines and he mentioned that demand is down so much that with corresponding reduction in flight schedules, starting March 29th the range of flight numbers assigned by his airline will be from 1 to 999. They won't need four digit flight numbers anymore. And then as an aside he listed of numbers to be blocked as unusable: 13 93 113 175 213 232 313 413 513 585 613 713 811 813 911 913.

Fascinating. You quickly see that any number that would be pronounced with a "thirteen" is avoided to soothe the triskaidekaphobes, and that leaves 93, 175, 232, 585, 811 and 911. Do you recognize what's happened here? I didn't realize it before, but airlines retire flight numbers the way hockey teams retire player numbers, but in this case it's not for scoring a lot of goals. Each of the unusable flight numbers represents a major air disaster involving that flight number. It's a combination of respect for the dead and avoiding making people uncomfortable to be boarding "United Airlines Flight 93."

UA 175 was the other company airplane lost on September 11th, 2001, and the blocked 911 also refers to that date. United even changed the flight times on that route so that there is no longer an eight a.m. departure that could be said to be the same flight. UA232 was the famous DC-10 landing with no hydraulics in Sioux City. UA585 killed all on board crashing at Colorado Springs due to an uncommanded rudder hard-over. And UA811 had a cargo door come off in flight, resulting in nine fatalities.

Movies and newspaper stories often don't say "United 811" but just "Flight 811" as though there were only one flight anywhere with that number. But of course the same flight number can be used by different airlines, and by the same airline day after day. As I started to write this I knew there had been two different crashes of "Flight 191." American Airlines 191 had an engine separate from the wing during takeoff severing hydraulic lines and cutting off power to some captain-side instrumentation. Delta Airlines 191 was brought down by a microburst while landing at Dallas-Fort Worth. While looking for those Wikipedia links I discovered three other flight 191 accidents. Wikipedia includes a sixth, the recent Turkish Airlines 1951, but I think that's stretching it.

I was assigned the transponder code 0313 recently, and a seat in row thirteen on two different legs of a three leg airline itinerary. One was even an emergency exit row. I wonder if other passengers avoided that row, leaving it for me, the late check-in.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Economic Blogging Cutbacks

My pilot readers all know this, but the fact that Patrick Smith dedicated a second column to it made me aware that the general public doesn't know it, and according to Smith's feedback, is scarcely able to believe it.

To summarize the article at the link above, airlines always and only hire pilots to be probationary junior first officers, and, assuming they pass the probationary period and every subsequent requalifying sim session, they move up slowly from there to higher levels of pay and responsibility. If layoffs occur, they occur in seniority number order, so it doesn't matter how skilled you are, how well you brownnose, or how much everyone loves you, the last hired is the first let go. If you find another airline to hire you, you start again as a junior first officer, even if you were a senior captain in your last job. The captain you fly with may acknowledge your experience in considering your input into command decisions, but you can still have a 35 year captain from a failed company sitting on the right of a tyro captain at an expanding one and right seat's pay and responsibility are commensurate with the hire date at the new company, and utterly unrelated to his previous experience.

At the low end of the aviation scale there are deviations from this. I, for example, was hired as a "direct entry captain" at a very small airline because they had expanded very rapidly and didn't have sufficient qualification inside their ranks to promote new captains. I have also been kept on at an aviation job in a time of layoffs over someone who was hired a week before me. I think it was that I had regular customers who asked for me, and thus was bringing in business. You had better believe that week would have made the difference between job and no job for me in an airline environment. I've seen an airline interview book that recommends that when an airline is conducting interviews in several cities, to travel to the one where they are interviewing first, so as to get an earlier job offer and thus a few seniority numbers higher than if you were hired in your own city. It matters that much.

I see the seniority system in action now as friends are losing their jobs or being demoted based on seniority. After achieving the required seniority, a pilot goes through rigorous training, screening and testing and gets promoted to captain. The economy goes down and everyone (in a case I know of, literally everyone with a lower seniority number than him) below him is laid off. He is no less skilled than he was yesterday, no less intelligent. But he is no longer a captain. he is now the lowliest first officer in the company. With commensurate pay (could mean his salary is halved), control over schedule and risk to his job.

I feel the seniority system even in my job. It's not a union company, but it will almost certainly work this way. There's fairly high pilot turnover because of the stress of being away from home close to 200 nights a year and for stretches of a month or more at a time, so if we have a big drop in flying, I won't be the first to go. And that makes me a little reluctant to move on to another company, where I would be. Had I been hired by one of my targets in the last couple of years, I'd be out of work right now.

As it is, I'm a little bit out of work. Despite a recent assurance by my chief pilot that my schedule would be unaffected, my scheduled April flying has been cancelled, and it now looks as if I may not be back at work until June. I'll weather it without starving or being thrown out on the street, and I'll have lots of free time, but if I have to suffer, you have to suffer, so I'm going to cut back to blogging two or three times a week. Yep, sorry, even your daily Aviatrix fix is hit by the decline in the international economy.

But Aviatrix, blogging is free! Oh come on, when did the economy ever make any sense? Everyone else uses the economy as an excuse to give you less, why can't I? I'll be off taking advantage of my free time, and not tied to my phone and instant availability.

If anyone needs some seasonal flying for the spring, maybe firewatch, drop me a line. I am happy to agree not to blog about your operation, if need be. Or hey, while I'm asking for work: Air Canada Jazz, please call. I dig Dash-8s. You have my number.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Getting On and Off in Texas

Heading out for some time out, I once again have to drive to the nearest major airport and do a handover with a replacement pilot. The airplane is in for scheduled maintenance and will be at least a couple of days, so this time I'm dropping off the car and flying out this afternoon, and then my replacement will pick up the car and drive back to the worksite when he arrives.

The USA has great highways. They are usually well-paved, with yellow lines in the middle, clear lane markings and white lines along the edge so you don't drive off the road. They usually have lots of bright reflective cateyes while Canada typically has only the glue marks left behind after the snowplough scraped the cateyes off the pavement. Some amazing engineering goes into the urban highway ramps. Some places they are stacked five or six layers deep. I'm sure there are dozens of advanced textbooks and hundreds of engineering theses on how to curve and bank an exit ramp, how long to make an exit or entrance lane, and where to put signs such that drivers can interpret them in time to make lane changes.

There are national, state and possibly also county highways and they have different formats. So one sign might direct you to 131 North, 23 South and East Loop. And the signs can be on the same pole so you see "East Loop 131 North 23 South." And then you're looking for 23 North and you see "North 23" and you go for it, realizing as you're committed to the ramp that that's 131 North and 23 South. So you're going the wrong way. Fortunately it's usually simple to exit, cross under the highway and get back on going in the proper direction. Okay, further evidence that Aviatrix can't drive. What else is new.

Texas on ramps: Some of them live up to that state of the art engineering picture. And some of them appear to have been built by the Dukes of Hazzard as a one-off. I guess the highway goes through all kinds of towns, and all of them want access. I have literally missed highway entrances to I-20 because I thought the ramp concerned was one of those dirt roads that cops use to do U-turns rather than a legitimate highway entrance. After a time I came to realize that while the interstate has a dependable consistency from Shreveport to Fort Worth and on to California, the entrance ramps aren't necessarily paved. It lends the interstate an exotic flavour, like The Road in Zelazny's Roadmarks.

Oh, and an airplane cartoon, just so I don't have to put the non-aviation tag on this.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Aircraft Operating Manual

I laugh at how vague this is. It's the Transport Canada standard for the Aircraft Operating manual I'm required to have on board. But if you go by the regulation, it seems more important that it contain page numbering than data.

624.27 Aircraft Operating Manual

An aircraft operating manual shall consist of the following:

(a) a table of contents;

(b) a list of effective pages;

(c) amending procedures;

(d) a preamble;

(e) the identification of the aeroplane by the type and registration, that the manual applies to; and

(f) the aeroplane's operating procedures and limitations.

My current one also contains a quantity of mildew, and a really charming atomic age users guide to the oxygen system, which I keep meaning to bring back to the hotel to blog about.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Not on the Menu

I'm on final for a landing late at night. In the back is a mission specialist who is sharp on aviation matters. I have briefed for a sterile cockpit--no conversation not directly related to aviation safety--between confirming the cabin secure for landing and exiting the runway after landing. He understands and respects this, and tolerates me reciting my checklists aloud. Perhaps he even appreciates it. "Landing flaps and props to go ... landing flaps coming set ... props up ... prelanding checks complete." I'm over the approach lights and double check "red blue green silver." Mixtures (the red levers) are full rich, props (the blue levers) are full fine, gear position indicator (the green lights) are all on, with no red lights there, and the silver mirror on the nacelle reflects the landing light. That's not so much to see that the light is working, but that the nosewheel has come down. The light is attached to the wheel.

I'm past the threshold. I've come in a little high, as I do here on purpose. It's a long runway and this end is in the woods, where I've been warned there may be deer. I have a better chance of seeing them if I wait until I'm over the darkness by the threshold before I start to flare. There are no slender-legged shadows on the runway and no mysteriously missing runway lights. I level out, still in descent, hold off ...

"HELLO!" There's a yell from the back. It's the sort of thing you yell if you wonder if someone is there, or have fallen asleep. Or if you have to yell something NOW to get someone's attention and can't formulate a better word to say, like "gear!" or "deer!" In that instant above the runway I recheck everything, and then realize at the end of the last instant before touchdown that "HELLO!" is also what you say when you're answering a telephone.

The mission specialist has picked up a cellphone call, probably from a manager calling to say, "have you landed yet?" and he has not swung his headset microphone far enough out of range not to pick up his voice. It turns out to be a good landing anyway. My heart catches up and we taxi in.

"You scared me," I confess. But he's taken off the headset now, still on the phone, and doesn't hear me. Just as well. The pilot is supposed to be unflappable.

He's hungry, and wondering what might be open this late at night. I remember that Whataburger was open 24 hours, and has a drive-through. He suspects that only the drive-through will be open this late at night, but as we pull into the parking lot we can see that the place is hopping. We park and walk in. The tables nearest the door are taken by a fairly large group of young twenty-something men. It never crossed my mind until just now as I wrote that sentence and thought of how it might sound to someone else, that the group could be a gang, even though they were clearly hanging out together. They were all so individualistic. Different fashions, different way of standing, different hair. I thought they were young to have no need for a group identity, and creative to have developed their own styles from what in this small town must be a limited palette of available wardrobe options. One is wearing a long khaki jacket and jeans hanging down to his knees. Another is almost preppy. One white guy sports a kind of orange mohawk, and military dogtags worn on the outside of his clothes. (Could be just a style thing, you can order them on the internet, or maybe he's grown out and dyed his hair during leave). You could cast him as the scary redneck in a Hollywood movie, except that he's lounging around peaceably at the Whataburger with all his black friends. And you know Hollywood didn't put together this group of friends, because they're missing a chubby one with glasses.

The breakfast menu at Whataburger is available from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. and we were well after eleven, so now was my chance to try the assigned egg and potato taquiera. Or taquito. Taquiero? Taquito, te quiero! What was it called. I looked at the menu. There were taquitos (taquitoes?), but egg and potato wasn't listed. "Uh, I'm looking for a potato and egg taquito, but I don't see it on the menu."

"That's okay. Lots of things aren't on the menu."

Woo, I'm getting a secret menu item.

"He asks me, "Do you want any sauce with that?"

I confess that I've never had one and I don't know what it is, but that I'd like to have one how people normally have them, please. He says people like to have hot sauce to dip them in, and throws some hot sauce in the bag. I also order a cinnamon roll and a medium milkshake.

While we're waiting another party who were sitting further into the restaurant leaves. They are three women, a lot dressier than I'd expect for a fast food restaurant. I guess they've stopped for a meal on the way home from a dressier establishment. They are all wearing long western skirts, down to their ankles. One looks very much like a pair of blue jeans opened up into a skirt with extra fabric added, but still quite close fitting. The others are similar styles. They are also wearing cowboy boots, and short fitted jackets. That's when I realize that Texas forms a bridge between the Wild West and the Deep South. No wonder it's so different. That's a lot to assimilate.

We take our food back to the hotel to eat, so I get to investigate mine while blogging about it. The milkshake is unremarkable, what I'd expect of a fast food milkshake, except that the medium is huge. I think I ended up throwing over half of it away, and I usually drink a large McDonald's milkskake easily. The cinnamon bun is also what I expected, but I have no idea and no expectations of this taquito.

It's wrapped in paper, and when I open it up it looks like a burrito. But what's inside the tortilla shell? It's mostly scrambled egg, but it's spicy, probably lots of salt. Presumably there is potato inside, too. It is, as promised, really good. I dip it in the salsa provided, and it tastes even better. I wish I had bought two of these. I can't really distinguish the potato, but I suspect it's been fried in something spicy before being mixed with the egg. I would eat this again. I wonder what other secret items are not on the menu. Also I promise to stop posting so much about food.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


This Air Canada incident involving a celebrity wouldn't have even caught my attention but for a peculiar contradiction. The airline insists that the scheduled flight from Heathrow to Toronto was diverted to St. John's, Newfoundland for a medical emergency. But the linked report implies that the only passenger disembarked was an intoxicated woman who was taken by police, not ambulance, and charged with a number of things, including endangering safety of an aircraft.

I'm not certain I've ever heard of Coleen Walsh, but apparently she hosted for radio and TV including CBC in Toronto, and was released on $2500 bail.

Although the Aviation Herald article refers to Ms. Walsh as "the ill passenger" I suspect they have incorrectly inferred that and that in fact Air Canada did divert for a medical emergency and simply have released no information on its nature. This is supported by the fact that Aviation Herald articles normally give no information on the nature of the medical emergency in such diversions and that the police were called 30 minutes after landing. If an airplane needs emergency services, ATC will make the necessary calls to have them meet the plane as soon as they arrive. It looks like the A330-300 diverted for medical reasons, was met by an ambulance for the actual ill passenger and then when Ms. Walsh proved to be unready for their subsequent departure, the crew called police.

The Star article almost makes it look as if Air Canada is trying to cover for her, "No, no, she wasn't sick, she was drunk!" but I'm sure it's just an error in the writing. That just goes to show how easy it is to have the facts:
1. airplane diverted for medical emergency
2. intoxicated person arrested
and just by sewing them together into a paragraph make the article say something else. I'm sure I do it all the time.

A later article in the same newspaper gives Ms. Walsh's side of the story. She apparently offered her first aid skills in relation to the medical emergency and when she was rejected because they wanted an actual doctor, she persisted, and pushed another passenger who told her to shut up. When asked to leave the airplane she complied, but became enraged when she realized that she was being taken into police custody. She cites an alcohol reaction with sleeping pills and a missed dose of other medication as contributing to her overreaction.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Cherry Limeade

Okay here we go. I'm driving back from the Sonic fast food restaurant with a cherry limeade, a chili cheesedog and an Oreo Blast, wondering what I've got myself in for. I can already see through the fast food plastic lid that the cherry limeade is predominately red, but has a suspiciously green blob at the top. It's kind of scary, but I said I would try this.

I pull into a parking spot at the FBO but see too late that it's marked with the name of a customer. I back out and park inelegantly in another spot. I carry everything into the FBO and let them know they can identify the vehicle to the next pilot as "the one that is parked badly." They assure me that no one in Texas knows how to park, so I'm fee to turn my attention to my meal. The cherry limeade comes in a styrofoam cup. Most beverages come in styrofoam here, even cold ones, which is rare in Canada. I think back maybe forty years ago when it was made with CFCs styrofoam was banned in Canada, and that even though it isn't anymore, consumer disdain prevents its widespread reintroduction. But I've had milkshakes and soft drinks served in expanded polystyrene here, as this one is. I take a sip. It's carbonated, tastes a bit like club soda. Not too sweet, maybe an almost salty taste. Definitely cherry flavouring. It's really good. And there's a lot of crushed ice. Darn, I should have got a larger one. When I get down to mostly ice, I open up the cup. I'm in for another surprise.

There's an actual quarter of a LIME in here. Real fruit. That's what the unsettling greenness was. The people at the FBO are watching my experiment and tell me it's made with Sprite. The sourness of the lime counteracts the sweetness of the Sprite in a very delicious way. I dig around in the ice a bit more and find a real maraschino cherry in there too. So that's a cherry limeade. If you get one, I recommend you open it up and squeeze the lime into the drink before drinking. This cost, by the way one dollar, and according to the cup it would be half price if I bought it between 2 and 4 p.m.

So the cherry limeade was a win. My reader cannot be blamed for the other stuff I bought, as I just went by the pictures on the menu. The chili cheesedog I'll simply describe as "not even close to looking like the picture." And I'll move on from there. The Oreo Blast was as I assumed a kind of McFlurry/DQ Blizzard equivalent, but it was kind of watery compared to either of those.

I chatted to the fine folk at the FBO while waiting for the weather to clear. One was an instructor student hoping for a chance to get up and practice airwork so she too was disappointed by the late appearance of the forecast clear weather. It finally arrived. I waited a bit longer for the weather at "home" to likewise clear, and I got back in time that the customer was never inconvenienced. Except in that they had to drive me to the airport and pick me up, but it was close.

Also: a reader e-mailed me today looking for help on a description and a source of detailed specifications for CL1B High approach lighting. If you know any more than "it's a centre line type with one Calvert bar" please e-mail me or leave a detailed comment.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Two Poor Approaches

Next morning I had to arrange maintenance for the broken tach. It was a weekend, of course. Airplanes know to break when it's a weekend, especially a holiday weekend, because they get more time off that way. I couldn't get a hold of the mechanic we'd planned to use here, so I left a message for the FBO manager asking if there was a weekend contact for him. (Yes, having Aviatrix in town means you sell a lot of gas, but you are at her beck and call, too). There were four other companies listed locally as "aviation repair." One has a an out of service number. I left messages for two others. One looked to be an aircraft manufacturer, not a repair shop, but if you can make one from scratch you can fix one, right? Maybe. I didn't call the the fourth company as it was clearly an aircraft cleaning company, and our problem wasn't dirt. I don't expect to hear from any of them before Monday, Maybe Tuesday if Monday is President's Day or Arbor Day or something. Another possibility is to find out who maintains the medevac helicopter that's parked at the hospital across the street from our hotel. That probably has 24 hour callout service. Broken airplanes inspire lateral thinking.

I go downstairs for the hotel breakfast, which is just ending. The woman cleaning up the breakfast leftovers is from Michigan, and admits to missing the snow, but only the first snowfall. After that she can live without snow just fine. She asks if I'd like another cinnamon bun and I decline. She asks again a little more insistently and I twig. "Do you have to throw them out?" She nods. I'll take them. I'll find someone who likes yummy food. She has a cute little box for the buns so they look really presentable.

I get a call back from Houston. The first company I called no longer has facilities locally, just the phone number, but he's very forthcoming with other possibilities in the vicinity. I write down all the names. The other company calls too. It's a helicopter operation, the owner of the medevac helicopter I saw. They seem to have discussed the problem before calling me back, because he says "we're betting it's a cable, and we wouldn't have the part for you." The FBO guy says he'll have the mechanic call me. He does, with a just woken up sort of voice. Turns out he's just come back from Mexico and is too sick to leave the house. I'm guessing that means too sick to leave the immediate vicinity of the bathroom, poor guy. He will try to look at the airplane tomorrow, if he can.

The PRM comes through with permission to ferry the aircraft. Standard wording: VFR, essential crew only, not over populated areas. I spread my search further afield and find an FBO we've dealt with before whose mechanics are willing to come out on a weekend. I do the counting on my fingers math to determine time to fuel, get a ride to the airport, warm up the engines and fly up there. I tell them I'll be there at noon.

I check the weather at the FBO and there is a line of weather approaching, with rain forecast for here. The satellite shows no high tops, just a bright green very narrow line dividing here from my destination. Weather has been very low at destination, probably corresponding to the front coming through, but is good now and is forecast to improve to clear about the time I'll arrive. Minimum visibility reported or forecast along the route has been two miles. It's so glorious having such density of reporting stations. If I were flying in Saskatchewan I'd have here and destination, with nothing in between.

I note the ferry permission in the logbook next to the snagged tach needle and except for that defect, the airplane runs up fine. I take off into the wind and then peel out of the circuit towards my destination, bombing along at 1900'. It's grey ahead, and I'm soon in the rain. Rain, rain, rain. There's rain coming in the window onto my elbow. Gotta get that seal fixed at the next scheduled maintenance. Two miles visibility and clear of cloud is acceptable VFR, but I can't actually see the ground only two miles away over my nose in level flight. My nose is too long. So I keep looking down over the wing at ground, "yep, still VFR". This is like being back at Victory Airways. The satellite picture was correct though. The rain quickly abates but there's lots of scud behind the front. I'm flying just above a scattered layer. About 30 miles back I pick up the ATIS. They're calling it 700 few, 2600 broken. So I'm expecting this scattered cloud to open up before I arrive. Twenty miles from destination I call approach and tell them the ATIS identifier I have.

There's no warning tone in the controllers voice at all as he asks me to confirm I just want a VFR approach. I answer in the affirmative and assume that he gets a lot of training traffic on a weekend, certainly my experience at most airports with IFR approach facilities. The ILS is NOTAMed out today, so I'm purely VFR. Approach clears me straight in, then ten miles out passes me to tower who immediately clears me to land. I can't even see the airport yet. Eight miles out I'm 500' above circuit altitude and still very much dodging clouds. This is not a picture of "few clouds at 700', broken at 2600'." I widen out to go around clouds, putting me on a kind of base, and then turn final using the guidance of the GPS. My engines are cooled back to the setting for landing, the flaps are set for approach, with prelanding checks are on the way. Five miles back on final I still don't have the runway in sight, but I'm sneaking down towards where the GPS tells me it is. Three miles out I'm at a thousand feet, exactly where I should be in altitude, but this so-called runway is still hidden by cloud. I can see outbuildings that show the airport is there. I put the gear down. It will have time to transit all the way down before I get around this last cloud and have to decide whether to overshoot or not. Taking the gear up before it is all the way down can confuse it.

And there's the runway. I fix my alignment, set landing flaps and props and touch down. That was an ugly, ugly VFR approach and I wouldn't want any student of mine doing it. Student pilots: don't fly like Aviatrix, and don't trust the ATIS. I accept my taxi clearance from the ground controller and suggest that 700 scattered might be more accurate. (The next METAR calls it 500 broken).

I taxi as told and the mechanic is there, marshalling me towards the hangar. He keeps beckoning me forward until my nosewheel bumps over the threshold of the hangar. I shutdown quickly and log the flight. I swear he had the cowl open before I had finished the very simple postflight paperwork. The mechanic asks me to watch the tach. He disconnects the tach cable and puts what looks like a drill into the end. When he powers it up, the tach responds, the needle lifting to about 700 rpm. The tach cable is not broken. Next he has me turn the propeller by hand while he watches the sending unit. It correctly reports the movement. That works. He wiggled the cable a bit more and hooked it up. He had me start the engine. I saw the tach come up, gave him the thumbs up and shut it down. The cable had been loose. That was all. I think the whole repair, including the paperwork, and putting the airplane back on the apron with a tug took twenty minutes.

I fawned with gratitude and gave him the stash of possibly still warm cinnamon buns to share with whomever it was I pulled him away from on a weekend. The weather at this point was still ugly so I decided to wait until it had gone through here, and until it had gone through and cleared up at "home" too. I asked the mechanics if local security would object to my walking down the apron to the FBO lounge. They said that technically I needed local credentials to be on that part of the apron, so I'd better go groundside. I went to the airplane to get my wallet and computer and he went home.

But then I realized I couldn't cut through the FBO to the groundside because the front door only locked with a key or from the inside, and I couldn't leave their shop unlocked. The pedestrian gates were chained and padlocked, but there was a security phone number on it.

"Hi," I said, to the person who answered. "I'm a pilot on the apron by the repair hangar and I want to walk down the apron to the FBO. Do I need a security escort or anything?"

I've given them a choice between saying "go ahead" and actually coming out and dealing with me. I know how this works. And I don't even have any more cinnamon rolls to give out. He says, "No, that will be okay. You can walk down there."

"Thanks," I say, already starting to walk down the apron. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't going to arrest me or anything."

I pass a building with a basketball hoop on the airside. I know of an airport with a horseshoe pit on airside, but this is my first basketball hoop. Just then the door on that building opens, and a uniformed security guard calls out jokingly "arrest her!" I laugh and then point out my surprise at the basketball hoop. I tell them I'm going to take a picture of it. "We're not going to arrest you for walking down the ramp! We're going to arrest you for taking pictures!" I take their pictures with the basketball hoop and continue, unarrested, to the FBO. I won't post the picture, because it's quite possible that they are supposed to arrest Canadians who photograph strategic airport basketball hoops, and it was only their common sense and my feminine wiles that kept me out of Guantanamo.

At the FBO I used their wireless to e-mail everyone about the success of my mission and tell them I'll be back when the weather clears up there, now forecast to be 3 p.m. And then I borrow a car from the FBO to do another of my assigned Texas experiments.

At Sonic, you must have a cherry limeade. You'll be blown away.

So I'm going to have lunch at Sonic, a drive-in I've noticed. They also have a drive-through window, and I steer for that. I drive up to the menu board and choose the accompaniments to my cherry limeade, and then I let my foot off the brake and roll forward looking for the speaker. Someone in the truck ahead of me is being handed a bag, from the first window, so it's not like McDonald's with one order window and one pick up window instead of a speaker. It must have been by the menu. At Tim Horton's the speaker is after the menu, so you have time to think about what you want while you're waiting for the queue to get to the speaker. Fortunately there's no one behind me.

I pull up to the window. "Sorry, I think I missed a speaker."

"That's okay," she says, and means it. It is a valid and important skill to be able to help people without making them feel stupid, and she does it. She could be an air traffic controller. She accepts my order for a small cherry limeade, a chili cheesedog and an Oreo Blast.

There's a sicker on the window reading "Comments? Call [this number] or ask to talk to a manager." When she brings me my order I say to her, "tell your manager you're awesome."

As I put my cherry limeade and my Oreo Blast in the cupholders, I see her actually doing it, pointing at me. The manager came over to the window, "I did, she is awesome," I confirm, and drive off.

I think I'll leave you in the same suspense as I was, driving back to the FBO to find out if I liked cherry limeade.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Needles, Guns, Coke and Cash

We've been flying for a while tonight. I'm back on the main tanks after running enough out of the outboards that they won't spill through the vents in hard turns, but I'm not yet pumping fuel from the auxiliary tanks, so that's somewhere between two and three hours under my system. It's very dark to the north and the lights on the ground create a false horizon making me bank about two degrees when I look out the window, and the AI is off by about that much too, so I have to keep crosschecking the flight instruments to keep the airplane right side up. At least the air is smooth tonight. Then a voice from the back asks, "Is your RPM thing supposed to do that?" I look, and the tachometer, a big gauge labelled RPM with two needles on it, shows the needle with the R on it steadily pointing to the second tick past the 20, while the needle with the L on it is oscillating wildly from the 5 back up to match the other one.

I sigh to myself at the airplane and answer calmly, and a little disgustedly, "No, it just does that for a while before it breaks."

The sound of the propellers is steady and all the other engine gauges are normal. There's nothing wrong with the left propeller. It's rotating at 2200 rpm, just as the right one is. The problem lies in the gauge. This is not an uncommon malfunction. The tachometer works because a cable transmits the rotation from the accessory drive to the instrument. I've seen this malfunction a few times in different types. I'm sure I've blogged about it before. Sometimes the telltale oscillation is only by 100 rpm or so. Sometimes it's only present at low RPM or at start up. I know to contact company right away when I see it, and get them to order a new tach cable, because some time in the next twenty hours or so, the tach is going to stop working altogether. In this case, it took only twenty minutes before the needle with the L on lay placidly at the bottom of the instrument. Best case scenario is that the cable has just come disconnected. More likely the cable needs replacing and there are possibilities of a fault with the gauge. Fortunately we are in the US and you can get anything delivered overnight here.

It's not an emergency, nor a reason to abort a flight. It is a no go item for a takeoff, but if the left propeller does anything stupid in flight, I'll now notice the sound before I would have noticed it on the tach, anyway. The propellers continue to rotate normally until I kill the mixtures at shutdown.

After the flight I contact my company PRM to let him know about the problem. I will be looking for maintenance locally, but ask him if he can get me permission to ferry the aircraft with the tach disabled. We meet up with the others for dinner.

In the parking lot, one of my coworkers says quietly, "Hey, that guy just pulled a handgun out of his pocket."

I look around and don't see anything. "What for? What did he do with it?"

"He put it down. He took it out of his hip pocket before sitting in his car. Like guys do with their wallet."

I guess that's what Texas guys do with their guns, too, when they keep them in their back pockets. Does he keep his wallet in the other pocket? In Canada you can have a handgun in your car, but you need a firearms acquisition licence and a separate permit to transport; it has to be unloaded and locked in an opaque container; and you have to be en route between your home, a gun show, firing range or licensed shooting event. It was a 'welcome to Texas' moment for us. We headed off to dinner, me with a Swiss Army knife in my front pocket. I don't know the armament status of the rest of the all-Canadian crew, but I imagine about equal to mine. Also there might be a sledgehammer or an axe in the back of the truck.

The two female members of the party wanted to go to "Billy's Barbeque" an establishment that announces its presence via those shiny stick-on letters you can buy at the hardware store, arranged not too crookedly on a wooden sign on the barbecuer's front lawn. But what says that he's serious is that Billy also has the name of the business hand painted on his van. The general appearance of the establishment (I checked it out earlier by daylight) would suit the Hollywood stereotype as habitation for the crazy guy who subsists on possum pie and moonshine. My rationale is that this is place has clearly been here a while. Locals eat here. And if people got sick here, the whole town would know, and Billy wouldn't be in business anymore. Despite my logic, the male members of the crew vetoed our choice.

We went to another barbecue restaurant instead. it wasn't quite as rustic, but definitely not corporate. They'd used multiply doubled over strings of Christmas lights to make a "neon" sign, and the decor seemed similarly improvised. Inside was a huge space --it might once have been a church hall--but only four tables. The menu had ribs, sausage and brisket available as either a "plate" or a "dinner." it was explained that a plate was lots of was lots of food and a dinner was less. They were out of ribs, so I had sausage. it was fantastic. I swapped a bit for someone else's brisket. Also delicious. Much better than the brisket I tried before at a different barbecue. The potato salad was tasty, too, and garnished with raw onion.

I took the opportunity of dealing with definite Texan people to try another of the Texas experiments I'd been assigned. I'd been told that "Coke" is a generic term in Texas, meaning "carbonated beverage," and that if I asked for a Coke, I'd be asked what sort. So I tried. But the result was not as predicted to me. I was brought a red can of Coca-Cola, no questions asked. I'd repeat the experiment, but I'm only willing to try it when I'm willing to accept an actual Coke, and a carbonated, caffeinated beverage is not my choice immediately before flying or sleep, and those are the main two times when I order food. Mainly because my day is principally composed of flying, sleep and ordering food.

We chatted with the chef. When we told him we were pilots he said he used to deliver furniture for an upscale company in Houston, and tallied on his fingers pilots, professional sports players, doctors, and car dealership owners as the purchasers of high-end furniture and the owners of nice houses. Yep, that's me. Not only is my furniture all either second hand or from Ikea, but some of it is both second hand and from Ikea.

Whoa! A guy on TV was just discussing the economy (or something else I wasn't paying attention to until he said the keywords that got my attention) and he referred to "getting it back on the glideslope." That's the first time I've noticed that aviation metaphor used by a non pilot. I wonder if anyone is monitoring the rate at which expressions like "keep a tight rein on" are fading away to be replaced by metaphors from newer technology.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April Fool

Sooo, it's that date again. I was just going to skip it, as I didn't want to do a fake post about getting an airline job, quitting blogging, losing my licence, winning the lottery, being taken hostage by extraterrestrials (who, of course, let me blog) or my being baffled by something in Texas. But I found something more foolish to blog about.

I entered a very silly contest hosted by The Flying Pinto, and even sillier than that, I won.

The really foolish part is that I've kind of obligated myself to blog about using the prize, now. It hasn't arrived yet, but when I next get home I gather it will be there, a little too late in the season for me to write my name in the snow.